- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

After surviving the War Between the States and Reconstruction, Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, suffered a devastating blow from Hurricane Katrina.

It was not the first time the historic home had been hit by a hurricane. On Aug. 17, 1969, Camille did its worst.

Preservationists and Southern sympathizers say repairs will be made and Beauvoir will stand again as testimony to the Confederacy’s only president. It will take time, money and dedication, however.

The lovely old home, built on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport, Miss., between 1848 and 1851, survived Katrina (and Camille) mainly as a result of its construction style.

Using an architectural model found in many coastal areas of the South, it was a raised-cottage-style edifice with its underpinnings supported by large brick columns with attractive latticework between them.

The white house with its green trim is what is called a floodwater house, with the first floor one story above the ground. Beauvoir had a long flight of stairs, probably 30 to 40 feet wide, leading up to the front veranda, which was about 10 to 14 feet aboveground. The area underneath the house was used for storage.

The prevailing meteorological/preservation viewpoint was that minimal flooding and attendant gulf winds would simply blow through the underside of the structure, leaving it relatively unscathed.

That philosophy worked fairly well until this year. Hurricane Katrina would tell a different story.

Camille’s assault

Camille attacked with a vengeance in 1969, with some barometric readings falling to 26.62 and wind gusts in excess of 200 mph. When the storm reached the Mississippi gulf coast and hit some of its smaller towns, such as Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and even Biloxi, considerable damage occurred along with at least 250 deaths. It was said that more than 5,000 homes were demolished and another 30,000 sustained heavy damage.

Camille affected Beauvoir, as well. Although the raised style kept the storm surge from flooding the first floor, a modern museum under the house was heavily damaged. After being closed for a time during repair and rebuilding, the lovely old estate opened again, to the delight of all.

Katrina would not be as kind.

Davis’ benefactor

The history of Beauvoir goes back to planter James Brown. In 1873, the estate passed to Frank Johnston and then to a woman named Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey. Her sympathies had been totally with the Confederacy during “the late unpleasantness,” and after Davis was released from prison at Fort Monroe, Va., she wrote the beleaguered former president and invited him to come there to write his memoirs.

She lived there with her half-brother and felt propriety would be served thereby. Davis accepted her invitation but always insisted upon paying for his occupancy.

By February 1877, he had moved there and was residing in the Library Pavilion, where he commenced work on his memoirs.

When Varina Davis decided to join him there, he bought the property from Miss Dorsey in early 1879 and moved his residence and writing accouterments to the main house, where he and Varina would live until his death on Dec. 6, 1889.

Unable to maintain the home alone, Varina transferred the title to the Mississippi Division of the United Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1902. It would serve both as a memorial to the Confederacy’s only president and as a home for aging and declining Confederate veterans.

The home, whose French title means “beautiful view,” would continue as a home for aged veterans from 1903 until 1957 and would house more than 2,000 veterans and their widows.

Beauvoir then became a beloved tourist attraction, with tours offered of the residence and the adjoining Confederate cemetery. In later years, a museum, the Davis Family Gallery, the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier and a Stars and Bars Gift Shop would open on the 52-acre site.

The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was completed 27 years ago, housing Davis’ personal papers, a combination theater and lecture hall and an extensive library on Southern history.

Wind and water

Just a few weeks ago, all that came to a crashing end as Hurricane Katrina — with a storm surge exceeding 25 feet — smashed into the home the Civil War could not destroy.

The stupendous winds toppled the magnolias and cedars and even some of the tall oaks; the cut-glass front door was shattered; and even though green louvers covered the windows, they could not withstand the force of the winds and water.

Initial reports suggested the destruction of Beauvoir, but historians and preservationists held their collective breath until a firsthand inspection could be done. Once historical director Patrick Hotard was able to get into the house, he could better assess its condition. It appears that about 65 percent of the house is intact, although all of the windows and doors were blown out and the storm winds and rain ravaged the inside.

A portion of the front porch line was destroyed, the front steps are gone, and aerial photographs show that a portion of the rear roof has been torn away. The five tall chimneys still stand, seemingly unaffected.

Additional damage came when the storm and floodwaters lifted up and pushed out furniture, numerous papers and various artifacts.

A large oval concrete frieze of Davis was found in the rubble, the Confederate rallying cry of “Deo Vindice” still visible.

Looters, too

The first floor of the new presidential library, which was built for $4.5 million and opened in 1998, was flooded, with considerable damage to its holdings. Though some papers were washed away, many may have been picked up and removed by looters.

To prevent further thefts, the estate and its outbuildings are being protected by Beauvoir’s own security people and the U.S. Army. The hospital museum, which lies in bits and pieces, housed an extensive collection of Confederate military artifacts, uniforms and weapons. Much of it was stolen early.

The barrel of a CSA 12-pounder howitzer-type cannon is missing and presumed stolen, as is the saddle Davis used in the Mexican War. Historians will be on the lookout for those items turning up for sale in various venues.

Amazingly, portraits of the Confederate president and his family survived Katrina’s attack and have been removed for safekeeping. Even some of the old Confederate flags survived the winds.

Reached at his Colorado home, Bertram Hayes-Davis, Jefferson Davis’ great-great-grandson, expressed relief that the house remained basically intact. “It was an amazing scenario,” he said. “I was there three weeks before for a meeting in Biloxi. … Something made me go [to Beauvoir]. I walked the grounds, I sat on the porch, I looked at the gulf, and I thought, ‘God help our souls — if a hurricane ever comes and it’s a big one, we could be gone.’

“Later on, I saw the aerials,” he continued, “and I was encouraged — the house is structurally sound, and I’m very optimistic that there is no big structural damage done.”

Looking ahead

Though Davis is best known as the Confederacy’s only president, he gained acclaim for his heroism in the Mexican War during 1847. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the 111-year-old women’s heritage group, took his clarion cry at Buena Vista, “Stand Fast,” as the motto for its highest historical award, the Jefferson Davis Medal.

Davis graduated from West Point and also served his country as a congressman and senator as well as being secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.

A rebuilding fund has been established already by the Friends of Beauvoir to help resurrect the presidential cottage on the gulf, dear to the hearts of Southerners and a showplace of the antebellum era.

Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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